JWR Articles: CD - The American Piano Duo (Featured performers: Jeffrey Shumway, Del Parkinson) - March 6, 2006

The American Piano Duo

3.5 3.5

Seldom-heard works given a boost

In an era when the standard repertoire is shrinking because the concert-going public is enticed into our largest halls with “can’t-miss” programming, it is especially exciting to have a CD that offers the world première recording of a work by Mendelssohn.

Only fourteen when he wrote the Concerto for Two Pianos, the pubescent composer would astonish the public and challenge musicians in perpetuity with his Octet for Strings just two years later. Apparently unsatisfied with his first attempt, Mendelssohn took out his “red pen” at about the time he was preparing to unleash the ground-breaking G Minor Piano Concerto. Brigham Young University’s Associate Professor of Music Theory (and manuscript detective) Steve Lindeman got hold of two versions (Mendelssohn’s and pianist Ignaz Moscheles’) and managed to cobble together a significantly revised version of the first movement, which follows the complete original on this remarkable recording.

The “Allegro maestoso” opens with a pleasantly reverberant introduction that slips at will in and out of the minor mode, aided and abetted by a fine string tone and notable woodwind declamations (the clarinet focussed and clear while the fluffy flute cries out for more support from the diaphragm at every turn). The heroic piano entries, with much more than a passing homage to Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, are ably delivered by Jeffrey Shumway and Del Parkinson and the stage is set for some mighty drama. Unfortunately, the sound engineer has left the keyboards too far forward, so that many orchestral details are lost or obscured—particularly troublesome during the passagework. That positioning also exacerbates the ever-sturdy but too frequently strident attacks that the soloists draw from their instruments.

As the development wears on (more academic than creative) the harmonic twists and turns are acknowledged but never savoured by Kory Katseanes and his talented charges. The closing triplets list dangerously to one side but the final dash to the double bar—once past the initial scramble—is pulled off effectively.

Only a tad more lift from the basses could improve the initial measures of the “Andante.” The pianos deliver the themes with poise and conviction, yet once again the violins can’t compete when it’s their turn for the melody. Following the bravura of the middle section (with its occasional echoes of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25), the American Piano Duo would benefit from taking just an ounce of relax and a few cadential breaths to raise this thoughtful movement to the next level in subsequent performances.

Fun, zest and verve (with a happy foreshadowing of La Comparsita) imbue the “Allegro vivace” from the first shot to the joie-de-vivre-rich closing. Ah youth! Where’s the equivalent today? Perhaps in the interior of “unglobalized” China?

Including the 1830 version of the first movement is instructive. With much truncating, it becomes readily apparent that the unabashedly enticing tone of the original hasn’t survived. Artists looking back years later can’t find the way of duplicating their internal moment of “conception.” Not surprising, then, that—rather than reinventing their own wheel—most relegate their unworthy art to the shredder or turn a page to the tune of “on to the next!”

An added bonus is Shumway’s performance of Cramer’s Piano Concerto No. 8 in D Minor. Cramer certainly has a skilled and talented advocate to make his case, but neither can rise above the pleasantly melodramatic construction (some of the first movement bass line is almost note for note from Mozart’s K. 466—also in D Minor!) or pedantic orchestration. Not surprisingly, the highlight is Cramer’s own cadenza—a wonderful showcase for the composer-as-pianist—superbly brought to life by Shumway.

The “Rondo à L’Espagniola” with its pizzicato start and delightful interventions from BYU’s principal oboe is fashioned with an ideal tempo by Katseanes. The soloist makes child’s play of the buckets of notes that must be traversed—the appearance of castanets saucily imagined—but like the early Stephen King novels, Cramer can’t find the magic of saying “adieu, à la prochaine” and merely brings the music to a halt. JWR

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Conductor - Kory Katseanes
Featured performers - Jeffrey Shumway, Del Parkinson
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E Major (1823) Allegro maestoso; Andante; Andante; Allegro vivace - Felix Mendelssohn
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E Major (1830) Allegro vivace - Felix Mendelssohn
Piano Concerto No. 8 in D Minor, Op. 70 Moderato assai; Larghetto; Rondo à L'Espagniola - Johann Baptist Cramer
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